Who Really Benefits From Affirmative Action

August 2nd 2017

Kyle Jaeger

A document obtained by The New York Times reveals that The Trump administration plans to crack down on universities that "discriminate" against white students through affirmative action policies, which are designed to incentivize diversity in admissions and hiring.

It's a legally questionable move that seems to run counter to court rulings—including a 2016 Supreme Court case that upheld affirmative action—but the basis of the administration's discrimination argument also ignores the fact that white women are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action.

That might surprise critics of affirmative action, who may believe that the practice is a system that gives less qualified, minority applicants priority over white applicants. In reality, though, affirmative action enables colleges to consider factors such as race and gender as part of a holistic application process.

"There are a lot of myths out there about what affirmative action really means and who it covers and what it looks like," Anne Hedgepeth, interim vice president of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) told ATTN:. "The reality is that it's very true that our past is not a past of equal opportunity or fair treatment."

"Affirmative action has been a success story, in some ways, for women in certain occupations, in certain opportunities," Hedgepeth said. "We should be building on that instead of turning the clock back."

Many women have seen significant gains as a result of affirmative action policies, HuffPost reported. That's reflected by the fact that women outnumber men on college campuses and account for a higher percentage of people who've obtained undergraduate degrees—a significant departure from 50 years ago, before affirmative action was implemented.

The benefits of affirmative action disproportionately benefit white women.

For example, while the gender wage gap has been slowly shrinking, a 2016 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that Hispanic and black women saw their incomes shrink by 4.5 and 5 percent (after adjusting for inflation) since 2008. For white women, incomes fell, too; but that decrease was 0.3 percent.


Yet white women are the most opposed, in terms of race and gender, to oppose affirmative action. A 2014 survey found that 67 percent of white women between the ages of 17 and 34 are against affirmative action, compared to 66 percent of white people overall and just 29 percent of women of color in that age bracket.

The survey didn't speculate about reasons why this might be, but researchers who analyzed the data offered one potential explanation.

"These data all suggest that, rather than seeing racism as a persistent problem still in need of remedy, many young white people—including those who identify as Democrats—are inclined to believe America is a colorblind society and that little remains to be done to remedy past racial injustices," researchers Sean McElwee and Jesse Rhodes wrote.

The idea that the Justice Department would insert itself into university policy matters and investigate discrimination against white students represents an inversion of the country's 50-year-old affirmative action laws.